ATLANTA — When Nicholas Speeks stepped into the top job at Mercedes-Benz China, he took over a sputtering brand. Mercedes, which commanded 17 percent of the premium market in 2012, was lagging rivals BMW and Audi.
Now, China is Mercedes' biggest market. The brand sold a record 232,050 vehicles in the first four months of this year and is forecast to grab 24 percent of the nation's luxury sales.
Speeks, 60, has been set up for an encore — this time in Mercedes' No. 2 market, the United States.
On Friday, May 17, he was named CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA. On Sept. 1, he will replace Dietmar Exler, 51, who will leave the company at the end of June after steering Mercedes to No. 1 in U.S. luxury sales for three straight years. In a statistical quirk, he did it without registering an annual sales increase.
As was the case in China in early 2013, Mercedes' momentum in the U.S. is showing signs of slowing. Its premium market share has fallen 2.2 percentage points since Exler took over in 2016.
Pressure from a resurgent BMW has ratcheted up this year. Powered by new and updated products, BMW bested Mercedes in U.S. luxury deliveries through the first four months of 2019 and threatens to reclaim the title it last held in 2015.
Amid rising vehicle prices, higher interest rates and a robust used-vehicle market, U.S. new-vehicle sales are expected to fall below 17 million for the first time since 2014, according to most forecasts.
Escalating trade tensions between the U.S. and China and Europe, accompanied by the prospect of tit-for-tat tariffs, poses material risk to a global automaker that imports nearly two-thirds of its U.S.-sold vehicles and exports about half of its U.S.-made product.
Exler foreshadowed the challenges ahead for his successor when he spoke with Automotive News in April.
"When the market is growing, when there is more demand, it's always a little easier," Exler said. "Now, we are going back to hand-to-hand combat for market share. That makes everybody much more alert. Getting every product launch right is much more of an important topic in a tough market."